Summer Spisak walked into the Austin police training academy in May for her first day, knowing the next eight months would push her to the brink. The 38-year-old former tech employee was ready for a career change — a job that would test her physical and mental stamina.
What happened during the next two months left her defeated and disappointed in how Austin police are taught the basics of the job.
She says instructors told the cadets they would “punch you in the face” if you said you wanted to be an officer to help people. Spisak says academy staffers also told students that a suspect who resists arrest or who fights with an officer “just earned a legal ass-whooping.”
Michael Gibbons was ready for paramilitary training. He had gone through boot camp as a U.S. Navy recruit and served four years. But at the Austin police academy, he says, he was stunned when an instructor told the cadets about sitting in a patrol car and watching two women fight instead of intervening “to get a laugh out of it.”
Jonathan Murray says instructors repeatedly degraded homeless people and prostitutes, referring to them as “cockroaches” and encouraging cadets to “find a transient” if they were bored and wanted an easy felony arrest.
Spisak, Gibbons and Murray are among 10 former cadets with a broad range of life and professional experiences who did not complete the academy training course — two were kicked out — and spoke in recent months to the American-Statesman.
They say what they were being taught at the academy is out of step with reforms being promoted by the Austin Police Department publicly and in law enforcement agencies across the country. To them, the training course for rookie Austin officers is unnecessarily aggressive — a climate they fear pervades the force of 1,800 officers and spills onto the street.
In the absence of a recording or other evidence, it is impossible to establish the accuracy of the former cadets’ accounts or whether the objectionable comments they report are the result of misunderstandings or mischaracterizations. There are many consistencies in their accounts, however, and Spisak, Gibbons and Murray documented their concerns in a letter to Police Department brass this year. They have not filed a lawsuit but say they want the problems they saw addressed.
City attorneys said they saw no reason for concern after reading the detailed description of the experiences of the three former cadets.
Interim Police Chief Brian Manley says he stands behind the training and that the former cadets’ recollections are not accurate. Yes, he says, instructors are sometimes confrontational and may curse. Yes, he says, they may at times create an atmosphere more like boot camp than college. But he said they still promote some of the most important values of being a police officer.
“We are giving them the requisite knowledge they need to go out and succeed in a very difficult profession,” Manley said. “I am very satisfied with how we are training the men and women of the Austin Police Department. If I wasn’t, I’d make changes.”
Police trainers say high intensity instruction is necessary to prepare officers so they can remain professional in the situations they may encounter on the job. Manley added that the department has changed aspects of training over the years to more closely reflect best practices or to align with community expectations.
The former cadets’ complaints come at a time when the Austin City Council and community groups are pushing for reforms. Long considered a model of progressive policing, the department has been the target for months of critics who say a long-functioning civilian oversight panel lacked enough power to properly hold officers and the department accountable.
Officers who use excessive force are still not disciplined appropriately, the critics say. This year has brought indictments against three officers in two force encounters, including one in which police stand accused of needlessly using a Taser on a man who witnessed a downtown shooting.
In January, Manley put in place a policy requiring officers to attempt to de-escalate volatile situations, a move cheered by police watchdog groups who worked with the department to draft it.
Yet experts say it is the culture of a training academy that most directly defines a department’s culture. Taken together, the cadets’ experiences paint a picture of a program that leaves some wondering whether the academy prepares officers for the challenges of modern policing.
Guardians or warriors?
Despite the importance of police cadet training, the law enforcement profession lacks consensus on the academy culture that best prepares officers.
In recent years, experts have increasingly debated the notion of what they call a “guardian versus warrior” training mentality. Guardians are community protectors trusted to help people. The warrior mindset emphasizes officers as enforcers of the law who, given the potential for violence, should be constantly ready for battle.
Sue Rahr operates the statewide training academy in Washington, one of only a few states requiring all cadets to attend the same facility, no matter where they’ll work. When she took over the agency in 2012, she said, the facility embraced a “fairly military-style training where recruits were treated like boot camp recruits.”
Rahr changed that.
“Basically I said to the training staff here, ‘This doesn’t make any sense,’ ” Rahr said. “We need to equip officers to do the job they have been hired to do and practice the skills they are going to need in the community. One of the most critical skills is initiating a conversation with someone in the community, a stranger.”
Rahr ended a requirement for cadets to snap to attention when a commander walked by. She replaced a trophy case with a mural of the Constitution. Instructors generally are not permitted to yell or curse at cadets, because, she says, that’s not how police should speak to citizens.
“You don’t have to lose your humanity in order to be safe,” she said. “It takes courage to demonstrate compassion. That really is the message.”
The Washington training facility still teaches cadets how and when to use force, including lethal force, and how to defend themselves when a suspect is aggressive or resisting.
Some who work in police training say they fear focusing on a softer side of law enforcement may not equip officers for the reality of violence and other confrontations, putting them at risk.
No in-depth studies have been done to examine benefits or shortcomings of either approach.
“We do need to do more research to look at the behavioral evidence,” said Seattle University criminal justice professor Jacqueline Helfgott. “What happens in the field in terms of the use of de-escalation and the implication of the guardian training elements.”
Texas is much like the rest of the nation, with academy philosophies differing among the state’s 108 licensed facilities. Each must meet state training standards on the number of hours spent on particular subjects; otherwise, the culture of each varies.
Kim Vickers, director of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which licenses officers, said he thinks academies should emphasize problem-solving and de-escalation techniques.
He knows that everyone does not agree. In a speech to a law enforcement group last year, he remembered getting odd stares and being challenged afterward by officers in the crowd.
“You’ve got to have the warrior side of you ready, but you can’t treat everybody like we are at war all of the time,” Vickers said. “They don’t deserve to be treated that way, and that type of treatment is not conducive to relationships between the public and the police.”
‘Winning warrior mentality’
Several of the former Austin cadets interviewed by the Statesman are just the type of applicants the Police Department says it wants — recruits with college educations and either military experience or other career backgrounds.
Spisak moved to Austin about 10 years ago to attend graduate school in architecture at the University of Texas but left to work in business operations for Intel, a career she had for eight years. She was moved to work in law enforcement after the Dallas police shootings in 2016.
During her nine weeks at the Austin police academy, she says, she was met with what she felt was unnecessary aggression from instructors.
After a training exercise in which instructors sprayed cadets with pepper spray, she says she had blurry vision for five weeks. While practicing take-down moves with another cadet, she says, an instructor yelled that the other cadet should “throw her down like a man.” She says her shoulder was injured as part of that training.
Within days, Spisak and other cadets were scheduled for firearms training. She said instructors told her she would “have to deal” with a shotgun recoil, but she resigned when her pain “combined with my ethical disagreement” became unbearable.
Gibbons said he also was injured in a fight during self-defense training. He said he sustained a fractured rib that led him to resign. Gibbons now teaches elementary school in Hays County.
Murray, who now works as an account manager for a large tech company, said that he also hurt a rib in the same self-defense class and that the instructor screamed in his face that he was weak and “didn’t (expletive) belong here.”
Their letter to the city, written by Austin attorney Derek Howard, contained more examples of training the former cadets say was abusive and inappropriate:
• An instructor told them they needed to achieve a “winning warrior mentality” by picking out a person in their daily lives — preferably not an older woman or child — and visualizing themselves “shooting that person in the face.”
• An instructor told cadets that “if an officer ends up in the hospital, that the person arrested better end up in the hospital as well.”
• “Instructors also showed videos/images of transients/prostitutes in the classroom with the only apparent reason being to make fun of the individuals and create a cadet buy-in of some despicable mentality.”
The former cadets offered to meet with Manley or training staff.
An assistant city attorney responded in a letter saying, “Many of the acts and statements cited in your letter are either untrue or are being mischaracterized or taken out of context. Cadet training is both physically and emotionally taxing as it is intended to instill in the cadets an ability to withstand high stress environments and instill in them the will to live.”
The Statesman reviewed reported injuries from the academy and found a total of 87 in the past three years, 23 of which were caused by cadets being struck. About 20 percent happened in the first week of training, and many of the injuries were “for reporting purposes only” and did not require medical treatment.
‘An intent behind it’
Austin police say their general goal is to make sure most cadets graduate. By the time cadets start the academy, the department has already invested in intensive screening and lengthy interviews. Over the past three classes, 70 to 80 percent became officers.
Cadets are trained well beyond the hours required by the state because, Manley said, “we want to teach them cultural competencies, because we want to teach them an understanding of the very diverse community we have here in Austin and the expectations we have here of our officers.”
“We train our officers at the Austin Police Department to be guardians, but to have the ability in the moment to become a warrior when it is necessary,” he said. “Law enforcement is a profession where you have situations where you have to go in and use force to protect yourself or the community, but the vast majority of the work we do requires that guardian mindset, that guardian training.”
As an example of the danger officers face on the job, police point to a recent case in which an Austin officer was shot in the arm at a South Austin duplex after responding to a 911 call. A second officer was injured while he scrambled for cover, police say.
Andre Porter, who graduated from the academy in 2016 and was selected by his class to speak at graduation, said the program prepared him.
“Everything that was done was very purposeful in preparing us to become police officers,” he said.
Porter said he never heard comments described by the former cadets, and he understands the value in instructors yelling at cadets.
“When you are put in those situations, you can’t react like a regular civilian can act,” he said. “I think the only way you can re-create that is to put them in those situations.”
In 2013, the city produced a video series that chronicled aspects of Austin’s training academy. Producers at times focused on the more boot camp-style approach instructors took with cadets, including in their first week.
Officer Scott Truho, an instructor at the time, blasted the class with a profanity-laden tirade for not having up-to-date records.
“We are sorely disappointed in you as a group,” he yelled. “We’ve got people showing up who have lived in Austin, Texas, for a (expletive) year and still don’t have the right address on their driver’s license. Guess what? You’re showing up at the Police Department and you’re violating the (expletive) law. Grab your water bottles and get the (expletive) outside.”
Instructor Michael Burgeson later said, “We’re talking down to them because that’s what happens on the street all the time. People constantly test your patience, so you have to be able to maintain yourself. Whatever they give you, you have to maintain your professionalism.”
Manley said that training is designed to ensure officers respond appropriately to citizens and supervisors alike.
“Policing is still a paramilitary organization, and it still has a rank-and-file structure,” he said. “There is an intent behind it.”
But the former cadets say they fear that such a training philosophy may limit the number of people who wish to join the force, particularly those who have had other professional experiences.
Nearly a year after she left the academy, Spisak has her real-estate license. She no longer dreams of being an officer.
“I wanted to make a difference,” Spisak said. “I wanted to be part of the changing face of policing and have officers who respect the community.”
How we got the story
Investigative reporter Tony Plohetski has covered criminal justice and law enforcement in Austin since 2002. He first learned of complaints about the Austin police academy in January, after three ex-cadets sent a list of concerns to the city of Austin. Plohetski interviewed another half-dozen cadets who had similar concerns and talked to experts who say the criticism of Austin’s academy echoes a national debate about police training. The complaints from the ex-cadets also come at a time when some in Austin are asking for stronger controls on how and when officers use force.